May 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Power outage

By Sarah Krasnostein
Athlete Claire Keefer trains for a Paralympics now postponed

According to professional shot-putter Claire Keefer, 24, she’s “just moving some metal plates around”. Each of these plates weighs 25 kilos. Together with her trainer, Corey, Keefer has just carried eight of them across the rubberised floor of the gym at the Victorian Institute of Sport on a Monday morning three weeks before the Nationals (the Australian Track and Field Championships) at which she is hoping to get early confirmation that she has made the 2020 Australian Paralympic team.

Keefer, who is already a Paralympic and World Para Athletics medallist, was born with achondroplasia. She competes in the F41 classification, for field athletes of short stature, and though she is the shortest in her class, she is currently ranked number one in the world. Still, Keefer remains nervous about the Nationals. “You never know what can happen,” she says.

After sliding each plate onto the opposing silver arms of a belted squat machine called the Pit Shark, and adding an extra 20 kilograms for good measure, Keefer climbs up the boxes she placed onto the machine’s platform, which allow her to approximate the height of the “able-bods” whom the machine is built to accommodate. Clipping a chain on her belt to a lever extending from the weighted bar below, she braces herself before using her legs to move the 220-kilogram bar up and down for a set she finishes quickly and without apparent effort. Then she chats with Corey about the weekend. This is her warm-up.

She’s been throwing for 10 years, having gotten into the sport at 14 when her brother’s athletics coach asked her why she wasn’t also competing. Two years later, she qualified for the 2012 London Paralympics but did not meet the age qualification. At the 2016 Rio Paralympics, she won bronze with a throw of 8.16 metres. In 2017, she threw 8.44 metres at the World Para Athletics Championships in London, winning silver. In 2019, she threw 9.19 metres, winning bronze at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai. Keefer’s personal best is 9.45 metres, which she threw once at an event in Christchurch. Her current goal is to throw at least 9.14 at the Nationals to automatically qualify for the Paralympics.

An LED sign over the weight room flashes: Tokyo Paralympics 176 Days, Tokyo Olympics 144 Days. Loading another 100 kilograms onto the Pit Shark, Keefer clips in for another set. Each time she starts to ascend from a squat, Corey pushes down on the bar, adding, he estimates, an additional 60 kilograms. The first 380-kilogram set done, she rests, still not noticeably puffed. Later this week, she’ll lift half a tonne.

Keefer just returned from the Sir Graeme Douglas International in New Zealand, which lacks events for disability athletics. She requested permission to compete anyway to work on her match fitness ahead of the Nationals. Keefer reports that she did “pretty good”, throwing a 9.15. She says that throwers are a supportive group. However, while she reflexively knows that anything over 14 metres is impressive for able-bodied throwers, she says that few, if any, able-bodied throwers would know the equivalent for throwers of short stature. That is, she executed an Olympic-qualifying throw that went under the radar for everyone except para athletes. “That’s the way it works, the way it is,” she says, with a wry smile.

Keefer grew up in Toowoomba, Queensland, where her parents – who are her biggest fans, travelling to all her events – prepared her for the world she would live in by refusing to modify anything to her size, with the exception of a small bicycle her father built for her. When Keefer was 11, she started losing feeling in her legs, couldn’t walk due to spinal problems. She had her first back surgery at 12 and continues to manage chronic pain, which means regularly forgoing training sessions.

“2017 was one of my best world championships, but also one of the shittest,” she says, explaining that she arrived in London in so much pain she had difficulty standing. She didn’t know until the day of her event, at which she won the silver medal, whether she’d be able to compete. Went straight from the spotlight to the physio table.

“I managed to pull it out,” she shrugs. Pushing harder has not been a problem; it’s taken time, however, to accept that she must regularly pull back to move forward. “From the end of London until mid 2018, I was not in a good place,” she says. “I was probably the fittest I’d ever been but my mental state… I just went to training and went home, talked to absolutely no one.”

Realising something needed to change, she started making time for friends and took a rare holiday to New Zealand. This is when she met her partner, Nina, a world para-badminton silver medallist whose family owns a farm outside of Christchurch. They now live in Melbourne and prioritise regular short breaks, visiting the farm where Keefer is at her happiest, not looking at her phone, not thinking about training. Last year was her strongest.

For practice, Keefer throws three times a week. On a recent morning at the track, she was focused on her technique and her speed in the circle, with Nina returning the shots and marking where they landed. Though Keefer was safeguarding her energy, working at around 60 per cent capacity, the perfect planes of her positioning in space were arresting, balletic as she spun with the iron sphere tucked close to her neck before launching it on a parabolic curve over the red dirt where it landed with a pleasing thump.

Keefer was bullied at school, “from prep to Year 12”. “It’s still going on,” she adds. She says that she and short-statured people she knows have faced discrimination at work – difficulty getting hired, employers reluctant to approve time off for spinal surgery. Every time she goes out in Melbourne or Sydney with Nina, who is also short-statured, they are singled out. People stare, take photos, men ask for high fives.

“The one pet hate I have is when a kid asks, ‘Why are you so short?’ and the mother or father just shushes them,” she says. “Just explain to your kid that everyone’s different.” This is not a problem they face as regularly in New Zealand; it’s never happened in Christchurch. Yet every time she flies there, or anywhere, she routinely has to fight with airlines over whether and how she can transport the scooter she requires for mobility. She’s started arriving at the airport early, anxious and armed with the regulations, to settle the issue.

Over at the bench press, Keefer lifts 100 kilograms. Resting, she flicks through the exercise program on her phone, chats with other athletes circulating between machines. Keefer is easy to laugh with, loves an occasional drink and a bit of Backstreet Boys in the gym, relaxing in front of Bones or by playing Call of Duty. But she emanates a supreme self-containment. This may be related to the fact that daily life in the country she represents is socially ordered to disable her in ways as numerous as they are purportedly invisible to those spared. But it reads, most significantly, as enormous power; the confidence and absorption of someone who is competing, above all, only with herself. She leans back, takes the full weight of the bar in her arms, and raises it towards the ceiling, despite Corey pushing it down.

“Some people think the shot-put comes from the upper body,” she says, sitting up. “It’s all in the legs, and the upper body finishes it off. The power comes from below.”

On March 23, due to the COVID-19 virus, the Australian Olympic Committee announced that an Australian team “could not be assembled in the changing circumstances”.

From her apartment, which has been hurriedly turned into a makeshift gym where she is currently in lockdown with Nina, Keefer understands the need for the postponement. “I’m not angry. We have to look after everyone else – it’s not just about us,” she says.

Gyms are closed. She has no access to training venues or throwing circles. Essential equipment has been distributed so each athlete can train from home. She receives coaching via her iPad, medical and physio sessions by phone. On the weekend, she’ll drive down to the country with her training partner: “We’re just going to throw off into some grass.”

With the Games postponed, she says, despite training for four years for this pinnacle event, she’ll have to start again from scratch. “Give the body a rest, let it recharge, and essentially we go again.”

Though she is describing a personal disappointment of staggering dimensions, Keefer’s tone is as casual as always, steady and not without empathy and humour; an ocean liner rather than a dinghy on the waves. Ironically, this may be a function of the fact that she is currently at her strongest. While she’s nervous about what could happen between now and the next Games, as an athlete’s future is uncertain at the best of times, she’s hopeful. “I wasn’t belt-squatting half a tonne last year,” she reflects. “Every year I get stronger.”

Sarah Krasnostein

Sarah Krasnostein is a writer, lawyer and researcher with a doctorate in criminal law. She is the author of The Trauma Cleaner.

@delasarah

May 2020

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